It’s the land of swamps, ga­tors and rocket ships. It’s God’s wait­ing room for re­tired refugees from Amer­ica’s frost-bit­ten north. It’s golden sands, tans and Ray Bans at six paces. It’s all that, but above all, Florida, the 27th state on the south-east­ern tip of North Amer­ica, is about magic. Let’s face it, if you’re a fam­ily jet­ting from Down Un­der, you’re hit­ting the sun­shine state for one rea­son: the theme parks. As much else as Florida has to of­fer – and there’s sur­pris­ingly a lot – it is its gi­gan­tic worlds of fan­tasy and fun that make it one of the great tourism mec­cas of the world. And the two big­gies – Walt Dis­ney World and Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios – match their con­sid­er­able hype with a mind-blow­ing ar­ray of rides and en­ter­tain­ment. First, to the orig­i­nal, WDW. Did I men­tion magic? If you’re com­ing here, get used to this word. It in­forms every­thing that hap­pens on this sprawl­ing so­lar sys­tem of themed worlds. The re­sort com­prises four theme parks: Ep­cot, Magic King­dom Park, Dis­ney’s An­i­mal King­dom Park and Dis­ney’s Hol­ly­wood Stu­dios, and two wa­ter parks: Dis­ney’s Bl­iz­zard Beach and Dis­ney’s Typhoon La­goon. Each park has its own dis­tinct char­ac­ter and fea­tures and de­mands an in­vest­ment of time to reap the full fun div­i­dend. We spent three days at WDW, which we thought would be more than enough to en­joy every­thing on of­fer. How wrong we were. The parks are so vast you will need to set aside a min­i­mum of one day for each – but I’d sug­gest two. It was our big­gest re­gret – hav­ing to rush from place to place for fear of miss­ing out on the most ex­cit­ing at­trac­tions. And when you rush, you start to lose the sense of magic and fan­tasy, which surely is the big­gest at­trac­tion of all about WDW. In fact, I would even sug­gest that you bud­get for a cou­ple of “days off ” be­tween tour­ing the theme parks. On those days you can chill by the pool, recharge the bat­ter­ies, per­haps ven­ture out to the mag­nif­i­cent Dis­ney Springs – a mini town of awe­some restau­rants, bars and the world’s big­gest store of Dis­ney merch – and gen­er­ally re­group for the next park as­sault. But no mat­ter how much – or lit­tle – time you have al­lo­cated, my num­ber one hack tip would be to re­lax. As our Dis­ney concierge said to us the day we ar­rived, it is sim­ply im­pos­si­ble to see and do every­thing, so don’t even try. Yet re­search will help re­lieve the FOMO. I re­searched this trip more than any other and yet I came away from WDW wish­ing I’d done more. By plan­ning ahead you will cre­ate an in­fin­itely more en­joy­able ex­pe­ri­ence. Dis­ney has a sen­sa­tional app – My Dis­ney Ex­pe­ri­ence – which is your pass­port to min­imise Dis­ney-in­duced stress. Why is this so cru­cial? Be­cause the re­sort is so big and the crowds gen­er­ally so dense, that it pays to plan where to go, where and when to eat, and the pre­cise times to hit spe­cific rides. We stayed on the re­sort, which I’d rec­om­mend. That way you are trans­ported vir­tu­ally from your door to the parks and can co-or­di­nate din­ing plans with your Mag­icband. Our ho­tel at Coron­ado Springs was ex­cel­lent, with pic­turesque grounds, al­though the room was dis­ap­point­ingly old. Among the many high­lights, there are few that must be noted. Firstly, din­ing with the princesses at Cin­derella’s Royal Ta­ble. Af­ter Mickey and his mates de­liver an all-singing, all danc­ing wel­come out­side the Dis­ney cas­tle, you are ush­ered in­side and up the wind­ing stair­well to the Royal Din­ing Hall. As a sump­tu­ous hot break­fast is served, each ta­ble is graced by a suc­ces­sion of Dis­ney princesses. Snow White, Ariel, Elsa, Aurora, Jas­mine, Belle, Ra­pun­zel, Tiana and of course Cin­derella, all stop to chat and pose for group self­ies. My girls loved this more than any­thing else. If you want to stay on­side you should book the break­fast. Trust me, your kids will find out about it and never for­give you if you fail to get them a ta­ble. Se­condly, don’t miss the pa­rade on Main Street. It is happy snap heaven as the great­est Dis­ney char­ac­ters glide by to the songs you for­got you knew by heart. Thirdly, the fire­works at night are bril­liant. They go off at every park, but the best by far are at Magic King­dom. Look out for Tinker­bell zoom­ing across the sky. Fourthly, the rides. For mine, Avatar, Soarin’, Space Moun­tain and Ever­est were the best but I also loved the An­i­mal King­dom Sa­fari and, for nos­tal­gia’s sake, It’s a Small World. But above all, sur­ren­der to the magic. It mat­ters lit­tle how old you are, how care­worn, how wary you are of the fiendishly clever meth­ods the en­ter­tain­ment jug­ger­naut de­ploys to melt hearts on cue. It is vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to stand in front of Dis­ney’s Magic King­dom cas­tle as Mickey Mouse bounds into view and fail to be up­lifted. Granted, the feel­ings will flow more freely if you’re there with your kids. But Mickey and his mates can charm the most cur­mud­geonly of grumpy old hu­mans. Dis­ney is magic. You’re re­minded of that at every turn, by every mem­ber of the Dis­ney fam­ily, from the bus driv­ers to the fairy­tale princesses you can meet for break­fast. It’s im­pos­si­ble not to be swept up in it. On every cor­ner, and beyond, there’s a favourite char­ac­ter, or a jug­gler, or a ma­gi­cian or a singing and danc­ing troupe. It’s a riot of fun and re­sis­tance is fu­tile. WDW was the first and re­mains the big­gest. But Uni­ver­sal is not far be­hind, fea­tur­ing three “worlds” to WDW’s five but now boast­ing its big­gest draw­card yet – the Wizard­ing World of Harry Pot­ter. With Hogsmeade and the ex­tra­or­di­nary Daigon Al­ley, Uni­ver­sal has cre­ated a fan­ta­sia that rules all oth­ers. Its size, com­plex­ity and at­ten­tion to de­tail drags the most scep­ti­cal of mug­gles into its world of wiz­ardry and spells. As you wan­der through a “bro­ken’’ brick wall on to the Al­ley’s cob­ble­stoned roads, the mun­dane world of re­al­ity slips away. Every shop, every laneway, every nook and cranny is steeped in the magic of Harry. Sip­ping on your but­ter beer (trust me you need to drink this), witches and war­locks beckon with mag­i­cal wands and ghouls groan and shriek from God knows where. You can seek refuge at The Leaky Caul­dron, a tra­di­tional ale­house whose sur­rounds and fare could have been plucked straight out of in­ner-city Lon­don.

In the heart of the town a gi­ant fire-breath­ing dragon perches men­ac­ingly over Gringotts Wizard­ing Bank. If you dare, a heart-stop­ping sim­u­la­tion ride awaits be­neath, plumb­ing the bow­els of the bank’s cav­ernous un­der­belly. Spoiler alert: He Who Shall Not Be Named may be lurk­ing. Con­nect­ing Daigon Al­ley, in Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios world, with Hogsmeade, in Is­lands of Ad­ven­ture, is the Hog­warts Ex­press steam train. This trip alone is worth the price of ad­mis­sion. Hack tip: Catch the train both ways – it’s a dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence on the re­turn trip. The Harry Pot­ter ex­pe­ri­ences are the spooky jew­els in Uni­ver­sal’s crown, but there are plenty of thrills and spills else­where in its two main parks. Its two main roller­coast­ers – the In­cred­i­ble Hulk and the Rip Ride Rocket – score highly on the thrill in­dex but mind you can han­dle the G-forces at play. Uni­ver­sal has also taken in­ter­ac­tive rides to the next level. In fact, there’s a touch of ge­nius about the way it has in­fused dig­i­tal ef­fects into all of its rides, even retro fit­ting old at­trac­tions with fresh in­ter­ac­tive el­e­ments. Uni­ver­sal has also upped its game in its gen­eral park ex­pe­ri­ence. There are more en­ter­tain­ers, more ran­dom mo­ments where cast mem­bers sur­prise, de­light and some­times scare, but in­vari­ably en­ter­tain. This all comes to­gether at Uni­ver­sal’s Ci­tyWalk – a daz­zling neon strip of fab­u­lous bars, eater­ies and mu­sic venues. Ci­tyWalk is tai­lored for young adults – not so much for smaller kids. It’s loud, bright and throb­bing with en­ergy. Again, it pays to plan. Uni­ver­sal also of­fers a short cut around the queues, with its Uni­ver­sal Ex­press pass. It’s pricey but you’ll want it. Ac­com­mo­da­tion at Uni­ver­sal is, as with Dis­ney, gen­er­ally ex­cel­lent. We stayed at the Ca­bana Bay Beach Re­sort, a stylish salute to the Florida beach ho­tels of the 1950s and 1960s. If you had to com­pare the two fran­chises, Uni­ver­sal is your Rolling Stones to Dis­ney’s Bea­tles. It’s a lit­tle edgier than its more fa­bled ri­val and of­fers a wel­come point of dif­fer­ence, par­tic­u­larly with its Harry Pot­ter ex­trav­a­ganza. Both though work their magic. And that’s what stays with you when you go.

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